Question: "What does the Bible say about etiquette / manners?"
Answer: Etiquette is a set of specific rules designed to ensure polite behavior in a group or within a culture. When someone knows and follows the expected rules for behavior, we say that person has good etiquette or good manners. Part of being properly socialized within a culture is learning what that culture considers acceptable behavior in dining, conversation, and attire. Proper etiquette can vary from culture to culture, so it is important for foreigners, missionaries, and anyone hoping to reach across cultural lines to study the manners of that culture. The Bible gives some solid guidelines about practicing etiquette and developing good manners.
The basic standard for Christian behavior is 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” When our goal is to honor the Lord in every way, we remain aware that we represent Him everywhere we go. Whether sitting in a church service, shopping at the mall, or working at our jobs, we can do so for the glory of God. When we carry the reputation of Jesus with us, our behavior affects the way others see Him. For one of God’s servants to be perceived as rude and uncivilized would be dishonoring to the Lord. Good etiquette is one way we can remove social barriers and create a connection with people who need to hear the gospel.
Paul traveled across many cultures in sharing the gospel and planting churches. He wrote that “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). The idiom “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” encapsulates that thought. Slurping soup in one culture is thought rude, while in another it shows appreciation to the cook. Handshake etiquette varies from culture to culture as well. Firm grips in America may translate as aggression to a Middle Easterner who is accustomed to hugs and kisses on the cheek. Our goal as Christians is to give the least amount of personal offense by the way we behave within a culture, while paving the way for the sharing of God’s truth.
Speech is another way we can either show proper etiquette or bring offense. Ephesians 4:29 relates God’s expectation for spoken communication: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” That standard harmonizes with the injunction that there be no “filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Ephesians 5:4). We can offend by our words as easily as we can offend by our actions, so learning culturally appropriate verbal skills is a part of having good etiquette.
As believers in Jesus Christ, we have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19), and we should deliver that message graciously, with good manners: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). There is no excuse for a Christian who is knowingly rude to others, especially during his presentation of the gospel. Bad manners and poor etiquette are distractions to the message we bear. The cross of Christ is naturally offensive to the unsaved world (1 Corinthians 1:23). If an offense must come, it should come from the message, not from the messenger.
Etiquette is more than fussy rules laid down by stuffy people; etiquette is the oil that lubricates society and reduces the friction of interpersonal relationships. When we view etiquette as a means by which we earn the right to speak into people’s lives, we become more sensitive to the way we present ourselves. We see our behaviors, from table manners to telling jokes, as instruments that either attract or distance others. Jesus is our model. He came to earth and took on our dress, customs, and manners in order to lead us to God (Philippians 2:5–8). As His followers, we should see etiquette as a way to follow in His footsteps.